For the young Simon Schama, the act of staring at great paintings in museums and books led to profound and thrilling revelations
Ah I see, I said to myself in the Courtauld collection. There was no one else around to say it to, not in 1960 when it was housed in a nondescript university office building at the corner of Woburn Square. I had the Cranachs, the Rubens, the Sisley puffer train, the Seurat plumper with the powder puff, the Van Gogh short of an ear, the Gauguin Tahitian with her ripe mango breasts; those trapeze-artist legs in Manet’s mirror, and in front of them the snub-nosed blonde at the bar giving us the fisheye; the whole lot of them, all to myself.
No guard in sight, just me and my Marmite-and-mousetrap sandwich. And the Cézanne. It was his Montagne Sainte-Victoire that let me see, properly, for the first time, how great art was constructed from the interlocking of elements, with such contrapuntal precision that the experience of intense looking became heady — a mysterious, visceral elation gathering force the longer one stood there.
Paul Cézanne (1839-1906), Montagne Sainte-Victoire with Large Pine, 1887 (circa). The Samuel Courtauld Trust, The Courtauld Gallery, London
That experience began with the drenching hit of light and colour; the atmospheric tremble shaking the pine branches; the blocky houses in the valley soaking up the heat. But then it was all about optical obedience; the gaze dragged across the breadth of the landscape by the tree branch, then spooling back and forth down into the valley around the mass of the mountain and back up again; a visual shimmy into deep space.
And I understood, dopily, that what I was staring at, and could go on staring at for hours on end, was a representation that was something other than figurative description; something possessed of potent independent life, built from colour and texture and the massing of volumes and the scooping out of space, and that all these things had to be held, magically, in perfect balance for the painting to deliver its full force.
To this day, it’s the wiring together of profound thought with spectacular skill that moves me most. By the same token, it’s the 30-second joke, the trivial wink, the pointless reach for cuteness, that gets my goat.
What I was staring at was something possessed of potent independent life, built from colour and texture and the massing of volumes and the scooping out of space
I sensed this conceptual bigness about Cézanne long before the teenage Courtauld epiphany. Inevitably the art teacher at school, a kindly soft-spoken, silver-haired gent called Keevil, had us doing still-life drawing: the pots of flowers, the bowls of fruit. Learn the modulations of light and shade on a spherical form and you’re on your way, boys, was the message.
But I’d seen those Cézanne apples and oranges, the angle of their heaping that should have made them spill; the visual twist of the cloth, the unnatural rake of the table top that ought to have undone the visual credibility of the whole composition, and I knew instinctively already that powerful art practised visual mischief.
I tried it myself at my mother’s kitchen table with oranges from the local greengrocer set in a smooth, celadon-coloured ceramic bowl. I stunk up the room with linseed, the aroma of Art triumphing over the gefilte fish. I loved the brilliant ooze coming from Mr Rowney’s tubes: Prussian Blue, Crimson Lake, Burnt Umber, the names my private poetry. I left my palette crusty, my brushes — many of them square-ended in the way I imagined Paul’s had been when he stabbed those faceted and tiled strokes onto the canvas — soaking in the turps pot.
Piero della Francesca (circa 1415-1492), Flagellation of Christ, probably 1455-1460. Oil and tempera on panel. 58.4 cm × 81.5 cm (23.0 in × 32.1 in). Located in the Galleria Nazionale della Marche, Urbino
My parents were bookish rather than artish. The shelves were lined with his favourite Balzac, George Eliot and Dickens, but the only art volumes I can remember were Ludwig Goldscheider’s on Leonardo’s drawings (which, however, blew me away) and Horst Gerson’s Rembrandt Paintings, plus another work on the Renaissance masters. I’ve forgotten the author, if ever I knew it, for it was the illustrations that transfixed me: the frozen weirdness (as I then thought) of Piero della Francesca’s Flagellation of Christ; the grace of Botticelli’s Primavera, at once balletically tantalising and affectedly remote; the downy sumptuousness of a Titian nude, an altogether different proposition.
Rembrandt Van Rijn, Self-Portrait with Two Circles, 1665. Oil on canvas, 114.3 cm × 94 cm (45.0 in × 37 in). Located in Kenwood House, London
Whenever we were up on Hampstead Heath, which was often, my dad and I would look in on Rembrandt’s great, deeply enigmatic self-portrait with the two circles behind him. ‘Show off,’ said Arthur with a spirit of fellow feeling, pointing to the blur by which the painter had represented his painting hand, even as the two empty hemispheres were painted with perfect motor control. I felt trapped in the painter’s searching glance and wished Mr Keevil could project the same kind of tutorial intensity.
On the way back, I’d stop at a bookshop and pick up yet another of the little pocket books, one per artist, published by Skira, out of which I made my own private gallery. One day I spotted the Modigliani, a nude stretched out in peachy languor. My pulse jumped. I handed over the two shillings and sixpence. The force field of the painting burned its way through my pocket all the way home. ‘Show off,’ I said to no one in particular, consumed with all kinds of happy envy.
Main image at top: Simon Schama at Bevis Marks Synagogue in the City of London. Photograph by Pal Hansen
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